Woody Harrelson

Solo (2018, Ron Howard)

Solo: A Star Wars Story is juvenile, which might be what manages to save it. It’s got nothing but problems—a troubled production (director Howard took over from fired “executive producers” Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and shot seventy-percent of what’s in the film), an uninspired screenplay (by Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son), the worst Star Wars music since A Day to Celebrate (“courtesy” John Powell), and a hilarious miscast “lead,” Alden Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is playing young Han Solo, almost forty years after Harrison Ford originated the part and became a megastar. Howard never directed Ford in anything—they did fight over Shirley Feeney in 1962 Modesto—and maybe it would’ve helped if Howard had any experience with him. But the script is so talky—the Kasdans write Ehrenreich is a cocky jabberer (and I’m not sure they realize with juxtaposing him with whiny Mark Hamill from the original Star Wars is a bad idea)—and Ehrenreich so bland he can’t even figure out how to get his hair to do the acting for him, which means he couldn’t have worked in the seventies, it was never going to work. Solo tries to ignore itself instead of embrace itself and ends up rotting on the vine.

The only performance the film needs to have right and has right is, arguably, Donald Glover, who’s playing Billy Dee Williams playing Lando Calrissian. Glover doesn’t mimic Williams’s mannerisms, but the voice inflections are spot on. And Glover manages to have a sincere subplot. Not in the script, but in his performance.

Miscast or not, Ehrenreich shouldn’t be getting shown up as far as sincerity goes. Especially not after now bad girl ex-girlfriend Emilia Clarke tells Ehrenreich he’s secretly the good guy. If we’re finding out Solo is going to come back and save them at the Death Star, we need to see it. We don’t see it anywhere.

Though Solo’s particularly bad at showing things. Cinematographer Bradford Young is anti-contrast; everything looks a little muddy, a little muted. Whatever Young and Howard thought they were doing with the colored lighting doesn’t work either. Especially not when the movie starts pretending it’s Empire Strikes Back, which leads to some okay spaceship flying shots and some really bad attempts from composer Powell to integrate John Williams music for nostalgia’s sake.

But at least they’re trying something.

And the trying is what “saves” Solo; albeit conditionally.

The movie opens with thirty year-old teenagers Ehrenreich and Clarke growing up in a Star Wars version of Oliver Twist. When they finally get to escape, only Ehrenreich can make it. He’s going to come back for her, he promises.

Fast forward three years and Ehrenreich hooks up with Woody Harrelson’s intergalactic thief crew. It’s Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Jon Favreau voicing the CGI action figure. Harrelson initially seems like he’s having fun and it’s not translating to a good performance. Then it seems like he’s not having fun and it’s still not translating to a good performance. Newton’s okay but she’s got the nagging girlfriend part–Solo goes out of its way to fail Bechdel and its “equality for droids” subplot is problematic and the slavery stuff is icky too. It’s not malicious, just exceptionally thoughtless.

Though, obviously, the whole thing is exceptionally thoughtless. It’s not like there’s some gem of a chase sequence or the big redeeming action set piece.

In not trying, however, Solo manages not to fail. Occasionally. There’s the broad fail of the concept, the broad fail of Ehrenreich, but Glover’s… captivating in his impression or performance or whatever. Clarke’s got a thin part written a piece of fortune cookie paper but she’s sympathetic.

Even if she apparently said no to Star Wars costumes and just wears a dress.

Paul Bettany’s villain isn’t… good but Bettany’s not sleeping through the performance. He’s not Harrelsoning it. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid activist really does seem to be there for a bunch of White men to laugh at civil rights, but Waller-Bridge’s great. And her comedy timing is better than anyone’s, though she presumably recorded the droid’s voice in post-production and didn’t have to suffer the set.

Solo is bland, long, boring—the first act is particularly dreadful, mostly because Ehrenreich’s so prominent and so disappointing—but it’s also not… predictable. The Kasdans’ script does make a lot of bad narrative decisions but they are decisions. And there are a lot of them. Event-based plotting might be the way I’d have described it as a teenager in an effort to justify liking it.

Plus there’s an Elder God.

Also… and I didn’t manage to work this anecdote in anywhere because I didn’t trend mean enough… Ron Howard? Bringing in the guy who infamously failed with Willow is a choice. Bringing in the guy who caped for Jake Lloyd’s performance in Phantom Menace is a choice.

And none of it even matters: Solo never had a chance. You might be able to recast Harrison Ford, but you can’t recreate Harrison Ford as Han Solo.

Though maybe they should’ve let Donald Glover try.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by John Powell; production designer, Neil Lamont; costume designers, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon; produced by Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Woody Harrelson (Beckett), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant), Linda Hunt (Lady Proxima), and Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos).


Wildcats (1986, Michael Ritchie)

Wildcats is supposed to be about a woman coaching high school football but it ends up being an unintentionally thorough examination of patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. There’s a lot to unpack; more, actually, than its worth. Because Wildcats isn’t just a failure of a female empowerment picture, it’s also a failure of a White savior picture. Things with Chicago’s “Central High”’s football team haven’t been going well in general—the previous season’s star quarterback quit school to become a criminal and the same bunch of guys who couldn’t get their act together on the team are back again this year because they all are repeating because they’re dumb. Oh, it’s also classist. The team is mostly Black guys, who talk mid-eighties R-rated Black guy jive as written by a White guy (meaning it’s rarely funny, even if the actor’s able to be funny), a handful of Hispanic stereotypes (including the guy translating for the other guy because it’s a sitcom special), and Woody Harrelson. The one thing the team has in common besides being in their early-to-mid-twenties is they hate the idea of a female coach.

So it’s a problem with the only willing football coach the principal can find is Goldie Hawn. See, she asked if she could coach the Junior Varsity team and after saying yes, admittedly good but utterly cartoonish villain Bruce McGill went and gave the job to a gay guy. Wildcats is at its most interesting eighties movie when there’s the homophobia against the gay guy but then the gay guy joins with the other guys in the room for some misogyny. It’s like Wildcats thinks, while telling this story about Hawn ostensibly having her White Savior story arc, having a woman coach the boys’ football team isn’t going to have to make a comment on toxic masculinity. No, it doesn’t, of course; the film doesn’t go there. Ezra Sacks’s screenplay is profoundly bland. But it doesn’t even recognize the position its putting itself in.

Of course, it also fails the White savior story arc because… Hawn’s a woman. She’s not empowered enough to be a White savior. The first act hints at trying it a bit, but then Sacks and director Ritchie’s utter disinterest in any kind of authentic narrative pushes it aside. But if you remember back, during the end of the second act and the first half of the third, it’s stunning to think the movie might have gone for that much of an arc for Hawn. Instead, Hawn’s arc is just finding the right group of men. And once you find the right group of men, well, you can convince the other men out there to acknowledge you. And if you can’t, there’s always punching. But the right men will do it.

It’s like Hawn’s supposed to be the lead of the movie but the movie doesn’t need her. Not just as the coach of the football team—because once they’re over her being a girl it’s all training montages and original soundtrack singles and the games fly by—but as the lead. The opening credits are home movies of Hawn as a child (well, Hawn’s character presumably) and her history with football. Dad was a player or a coach. Maybe both. Doesn’t matter, because Hawn’s history with football and ability as a football coach have nothing to do with the movie. They’re nonsense details. The movie would be no different if Hawn got the job through a clerical error.

Sacks’s script goes with every predictable plot turn—once ex-husband James Keach (who’s not good but perfectly cast as an upper class prig) starts threatening to take Hawn’s kids away from her, anyway. Before Keach comes into the movie it’s just Hawn and the montages and then her trying to get the ex-star quarterback to give up crime for football, which is kind of more likable because even with the bad script you don’t dislike the actors and you wish the script were better for them. With Keach… well, he brings in new girlfriend Jan Hooks, who’s a punching bag for gags (an example of the film’s passive versus active misogyny), but it also gives Robyn Lively more to do. She’s the older daughter. She’s not very good. Her part’s terribly written, Ritchie could give a hoot about directing the actors, but she’s not very good.

So, Keach drags the film down, directly and indirectly. Especially when you get into how badly Sacks writes anything related to White privilege. Like the toxic masculinity, you can tell he notices it and sees it might not be good, but then pushes those thoughts down and acts like it’s okay to have rapey jokes about Hawn from students, as well as Black principal Nipsey Russell get threatened by rich school’s teacher McGill and whatever else I’m forgetting, and to just go with it. There’s one part where the team destroys Hawn’s office and faces no consequence because, well, she needs motivation; she’s a woman after all.

It’s a lot. There’s a lot. And even if you’re willing to forgive a solid amount because it was the eighties, the movie itself still flops around and then fizzles by the end. Ritchie and Sacks not caring about football ends up limiting what they can come up with the final game. The big showdown between Hawn and her nemesis gets hijacked by fat jokes. And Ritchie shooting a bunch of solo inserts of Hawn’s reaction shots to the game when she should be, I don’t know, coaching or something. It’s a really oddly directed movie football game. It’s poorly directed, but also oddly directed.

Though the football games are the only thing Richard A. Harris can edit acceptably. Every other cut in the movie’s a little off. Ritchie has this boring one-shot he always goes with from close-ups and Harris can never figure out how to cut it, even though Ritchie seems to have given him enough coverage.

It’s like no one cared.

James Newton Howard’s score is bad.

Donald E. Thorin’s photography is adequate.

The best technical contribution is Marion Dougherty, who casted. The team is mostly solid, performance-wise, when they need to be. They don’t do great at being assholes, but once they’re okay being coached by a woman, they’re fine. Wesley Snipes has maybe the showiest part, he’s okay. Mykelti Williamson’s okay. Not a good part, but he’s okay.

M. Emmet Walsh’s got a small role and you wish they’d gotten someone else for it, just because it’s Walsh and you want to like him and there’s no reason to like him in Wildcats. Like much of the film, he’s pointless. Sacks’s script doesn’t have anything for its performers. Not good speeches, not good scenes, not good arcs. No one even gets an arc. Not really.

Until Keach comes in strong—which is well over half-way in–Wildcats seems like it’s going to make it to the finish. Not great, not even good, but passable enough. Hawn’s charm can carry a whole lot. And given the movie is supposed to be her movie but instead Ritchie and Sacks do everything they can not to make it her movie, she gets some added sympathy. But that third act is the pits.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Ritchie; written by Ezra Sacks; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Richard A. Harris; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Anthea Sylbert; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Molly), James Keach (Frank), Mykelti Williamson (Bird), Nipsey Russell (Edwards), Bruce McGill (Darwell), Robyn Lively (Alice), Brandy Gold (Marian), Swoosie Kurtz (Verna), Wesley Snipes (Trumaine), Tab Thacker (Finch), Woody Harrelson (Krushinski), Jsu Garcia (Cerulo), Jan Hooks (Stephanie), Willie J. Walton (Marvel), Rodney Hill (Peanut), and M. Emmet Walsh (Coes).



The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

The Thin Red Line is about fear, beauty, solitude, loneliness. Director Malick’s approach is, frankly, staggering. Thin Red Line is an odd film to talk about because in most ways, it’s my favorite film. One of the great things about a good movie–not even an excellent or an amazing movie, but a good movie (and quite a few bad ones)–is being able to return to it as one matures, learns, comprehends and to appreciate it on additional levels. Returning to Thin Red Line for the first time in many years, I discovered it works in all those ways. Knowing more about film informs it, knowing more about history informs it, knowing more about narrative informs it, knowing more about owls informs it. Film is not static. Film ages with everything else. It grows, it contracts, it makes people laugh at the wrong moment. Malick acknowledges the film’s majesty. He does not give Nick Nolte a big part as a blowhard because he isn’t acknowledging the perfection in that casting choice. He does it because Nolte can do this part and he can make it phenomenal.

So much of the film is about the acting but not the actors. Malick doesn’t let the viewer identify with the characters by actor, rather by emotional impact. The film has frequent–often constant–narration from a variety of characters. I don’t even think the main narrator is ever identified, not for sure, because the viewer is the main narrator. He or she goes through the film as presented, through the fear, through the beauty, the solitude, the loneliness, and comes to this conclusion. To the film’s conclusion.

Or the narrator is just John Dee Smith. Though, if Smith is the narrator, Malick manages to turn the viewer into a Southern boy with an abusive stepfather and bad teeth, because there’s no difference. Malick doesn’t use characters in that manner. Even with Ben Chaplin’s officer turned private, whose entire internal life is about his wife back home, his details aren’t as important as how he reacts with them in frame. Because Thin Red Line isn’t some grand, sweeping melodrama, it’s an intensely focused, intensely personal film, emphasis on the film. Malick’s far more in the Eisenstein school of collision–basically how the presentation of shots and their editing, not necessarily their content, can be used to create emotion in the viewer–than something like David Lean or anyone else. It’s a lyrical assault.

Only Malick is using the content. He’s using the visual content of these beautiful, tropical Eden. He’s using the narrative content of a war movie. He’s using the audial content of the narrators. And he collides them, he separates them, he compares them. Thin Red Line is like going to an island of World War II reenactors and taking acid. And you’re invisible. And everyone looks like a famous person. Malick is speaking directly to the viewer and creating this setting for the viewer’s personal edification.

Malick strips the community out of The Thin Red Line. The way he structures the first act, the way he structures the first half–he’s removing the viewer’s sense of community, sense of stability. It’s far more personal. The poetic narration, separated so much from the characters or the setting, engages with the viewer. Malick is using the narrative content to echo the emotions created by the film’s visuals. Pardon my passive voice.

This sort of tempo isn’t unique to the film or to Malick. It’s the rhythm of good filmmaking. But Malick is playing different music and getting the same emotional beats. He’s got two movies playing side by side, one top of one another, completely transparent. And they’re jointly the film.

Like I said.

Staggering.

Malick gets some phenomenal performances out of his cast. Nolte, Chaplin, top-billed Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack’s great in his small role. Woody Harrelson too. Though differently.

And then there’s Jim Caviezel. He doesn’t exactly play the film’s lead, but he does play the character who the audience spends the film trying to understand. It’s not clear if Malick thinks Caviezel’s the most interesting guy around; the film’s pretty even between Caviezel, Chaplin and then Nolte and Koteas in the stuff of epical importance. Oh, and then Mihok. He’s got a fairly large part.

But Malick posits he is showing the viewer the world through Caviezel’s character’s perspective. Not his eyes. His perspective (which allows for subplots). And Malick uses that particular perspective with the visual aspects of the film. The narrative level is far looser; Malick’s ability to naturally follow Caviezel around, especially as he inserts himself into the story, is skillful filmmaking. Malick, Caviezel, the other actors, the editors, they do a great job.

The editors are real important for Thin Red Line. Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. The cuts in the film are sublime. The editors understand Malick’s narrative needs–for example, introducing the characters to the viewer–but also the need to actively force the viewer to make his or her own connections. Thin Red Line has a steep learning curve and unforgiving blind corners.

(Sorry, I needed a good mixed metaphor).

The first time I saw The Thin Red Line, I saw it again immediately following. Opening night. Returning to it over fifteen years later, I’m terrified at the prospective of an immediate rewatch. It’s too much. I like it too much. The Thin Red Line is my Nietzschean abyss. I just can’t too much.

This time watching it–I’d forgotten a lot–I really noticed the change in the weather. The clouds moving across the soldiers. That detail pulled me in. And I can see the film doing it, beckoning me, but it doesn’t matter. Creating something so focused, so controlled, yet so open, so welcoming… it’s just another amazing part of the film and Malick’s filmmaking here.

I also noticed, this time, Caviezel’s character has a Japanese alter ego.

Wonder what I’ll notice next time.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terrence Malick; screenplay by Malick, based on the novel by James Jones; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Billy Weber, Saar Klein and Leslie Jones; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), John Travolta (Barr), James Caviezel (Private Witt), Adrien Brody (Corporal Fife), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Nick Nolte (Lieut. Col. Gordon Tall), Ben Chaplin (Private Bell), Dash Mihok (Private First Class Doll), Arie Verveen (Private Dale), David Harrod (Corporal Queen), John C. Reilly (Mess Sergeant Storm), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Larry Romano (Private Mazzi), Tim Blake Nelson (Private Tills), Woody Harrelson (Staff Sergeant Keck), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche) and John Savage (McCron).


Now You See Me (2013, Louis Leterrier), the extended edition

Now You See Me plays a little like Ocean’s Eleven without Steven Soderbergh and a great cast of supporting character actors instead of lead actors doing an ensemble. Except maybe Jesse Eisenberg. He acts like he’s running See Me, even though he’s not in it very much. And his character’s supposed to be acting like he owns it… it kind of works.

Director Leterrier is outstanding at the flash. There’s a flashy car chase, there’s flashy magic acts, there’s flashy this, there’s flashy that–but he’s also capable of doing a nice, quiet character arc for Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent. They’ve got wonderful chemistry. They play the federal agents (okay, she’s from Interpol but whatever) after Eisenberg and his fellow outlaw magicians (an amusing Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher in the film’s only bad performance and a very appealing Dave Franco). Along the way, they get a little flirty and it’s a nice subplot for the picture, which is very busy with it’s more scripted plotting.

Besides the magicians–and See Me jumps ahead a year from their introduction, so they’re no longer reliable protagonists–there’s the FBI, but also Morgan Freeman as a magician debunker and Michael Caine’s around too as the magician’s wealthy benefactor. Leterrier juggles everything quite well–the film doesn’t even drag until the car chase, almost seventy minutes in, gets a little long in the tooth.

It’s just empty and dumb. An actual smart script, and not a sneaky one, would have helped a lot.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, based on a story by Yakin and Ricourt; directors of photography, Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; edited by Robert Leighton and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Peter Wenham; produced by Bobby Cohen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Mark Ruffalo (Dylan Rhodes), Mélanie Laurent (Alma Dray), Jesse Eisenberg (J. Daniel Atlas), Woody Harrelson (Merritt McKinney), Isla Fisher (Henley Reeves), Dave Franco (Jack Wilder), Morgan Freeman (Thaddeus Bradley), Michael Caine (Arthur Tressler), Michael Kelly (Agent Fuller), Common (Evans), David Warshofsky (Cowan) and José Garcia (Etienne Forcier).


Seven Psychopaths (2012, Martin McDonough)

One could say a lot about Seven Psychopaths and how McDonough teases the fourth wall to propel the plot. But such a discussion would distract too much from the film. McDonough gleefully avoids profundity with Psychopaths, though he does occasionally find it. At those moments, he allows the briefest pause before continuing with the relentless, savage humor.

McDonough isn’t discreet about these plotting decisions either–he draws attention to them so jokes pay off better. Psychopaths jokes range from situational to phonetical. He takes great advantage of each actor, whether it’s Sam Rockwell (who gets the most to do in the film) or Christopher Walken (who gets the second most, but has the best revelations in his character). The actors fully inhabit their characters, even Woody Harrelson, who has the weakest part.

Of course, the lead’s not Rockwell or Walken (they just carry the movie away with them), it’s Colin Farrell. And Farrell’s playing a screenwriter named Martin–just like McDonough, playing up the pliable fourth wall. Farrell’s job is to provide some stability and his greatest achievement is not getting lost amongst the more dynamic performances. He has an analogue in an underutilized Zeljko Ivanek. Both are playing straight men (Ivanek to Harrelson, Farrell to everyone); both do rather well at it.

Also excellent are Linda Bright Clay and Tom Waits. Look fast for Crispin Glover.

McDonough’s Panavision composition is strong, ably assisted by Ben Davis’s photography. It’s occasionally too crisp.

Psychopaths is an excellently acted, excellently written amusement.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Martin McDonough; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Lisa Gunning; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and McDonough; released by CBS Films.

Starring Colin Farrell (Marty), Sam Rockwell (Billy), Woody Harrelson (Charlie), Christopher Walken (Hans), Tom Waits (Zachariah), Abbie Cornish (Kaya), Olga Kurylenko (Angela), Linda Bright Clay (Myra), Kevin Corrigan (Dennis), Zeljko Ivanek (Paulo) and Long Nguyen (The Priest).


Bunraku (2010, Guy Moshe)

Even with the annoying narration from Mike Patton (maybe director Moshe cast him because he’s a big Faith No More fan because Patton doesn’t narrate well), Bunraku is seamless. Moshe’s initial artistic impulse carries through. Things sometimes don’t work—Josh Hartnett’s character is supposed to be a drifter in the Western tradition, but his wardrobe seems more appropriate for film noir. And there are quirks with that character in particular. But Moshe carries them through and doesn’t give up on them.

The film is he and Gackt seeking revenge on the town bad guy, played by Ron Perlman. The film’s a mix of post-apocalyptic, Western, Japanese samurai and… Soviet propaganda films. It’s visually stunning. There’s no sky in Bunraku, just papier-mâché. The outdoor scenes are mesmerizing, even the simple ones, because Moshe creates something so distinct.

But Moshe’s approach isn’t just Western or samurai… Sometimes he embraces the absurdity of the film. With Terrence Blanchard’s fantastic, fluid score going, Bunraku at times seems like an episode of the “Batman” TV show (during the fight scenes), only magnificently choreographed.

The relationship between Hartnett and Gackt works—though it needs a third, whether it’s Woody Harrelson’s bartender mentor, or (in Moshe’s most subtle stroke) Gackt’s cousin, played by Emily Kaiho.

Perlman’s good as the villain, but can’t compete with Kevin McKidd as his vicious subordinate. McKidd transfixes.

While not good, Demi Moore’s not terrible.

Besides that annoying narration, Bunraku is an excellent film. Moshe’s enthusiasm for the film is infectious.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Moshe; screenplay by Moshe, based on a story by Boaz Davidson; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Glenn Garland and Zach Staenberg; music by Terrence Blanchard; production designer, Chris Farmer; produced by Ram Bergman, Keith Calder, Nava Levin and Jessica Wu; released by Arc Entertainment.

Starring Josh Hartnett (The Drifter), Gackt (Yoshi), Woody Harrelson (The Bartender), Kevin McKidd (Killer #2), Jordi Mollà (Valentine), Emily Kaiho (Momoko), Sugata Shun (Uncle), Ron Perlman (Nicola) and Demi Moore (Alexandra). Narrated by Mike Patton.


Kingpin (1996, Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly)

The Farrelly Brothers created the mainstream gross-out comedy here in Kingpin, with all the familiar trappings–a familiar, if somewhat independently minded cast (Chris Elliot is in Kingpin), the star in need of a hit (Bill Murray), the popular soundtrack, and the storyline entirely capable of being tame, then ramped up for the belly laughs.

The difference between Kingpin and what came after, and the Farrelly Brothers made lots of them, until they finally stopped having hits (they have finally stopped making hits, haven’t they–I try not to see their movies), is Woody Harrelson. Harrelson turns in an exceptional performance in Kingpin, turning his (dirty) comic strip character into a full-fledged human being by the end. One of the great things the Farrelly Brothers do here is keep him gross throughout. Even after he turns the corner, he’s still bald with a comb-over (lots of comb-overs, Murray’s being the most stunning), with terrible teeth.

The film’s a rehash of The Color of Money, just with bowling and forty-six year-old Randy Quaid playing a twenty-something. Quaid’s great too, but it’s hardly a stretch. In his best dramatic scenes, he seems to be imitating his brother, actually.

Vanessa Angel is fine as the sexpot with the heart of gold (she’s kind of like a Rosanna Arquette who can act).

Also impressive are the bowling scenes, when it becomes a straight narrative, only with Harrelson in his absurd makeup.

It’s fantastic, hilarious and exceptionally confident.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly; written by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Freedy Johnston; production designer, Sidney J. Bartholomew Jr.; produced by Brad Krevoy, Steven Stabler and Bradley Thomas; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Roy Munson), Randy Quaid (Ishmael), Vanessa Angel (Claudia), Bill Murray (Ernie McCracken) and Chris Elliott (the Gambler).


Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer)

I can’t believe Zombieland got made. I mean, I understand it’s a reasonable financial success and all, but who greenlighted this film? It’s from a couple no name writers and a no name director and the best known cast member is Woody Harrelson.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Woody Harrelson and have been an avid supporter for many a year, but really… it’s way too… smart to be a studio picture. Even when it does silly, obvious things, it’s leagues better than what I was expecting.

For instance, the Bill Murray cameo–it does work; it’s funny but it’d be funnier if it were someone who hadn’t been through a nasty public divorce and needed to do image clean-up. Plus, there’s a comment about Murray’s dramatic turns, but nothing about him running out of the Oscars in a huff when he doesn’t win.

I think Mel Gibson would have been a much better choice, especially since he isn’t a comic actor in the same way. But then, Mel Gibson isn’t a Sony slash Columbia slash Tri-Star actor and Zombieland is one of the biggest studio pictures I can think of–it’s the Gremlins 2 of the zombie genre.

Acting wise, it’s all solid, but unspectacular. Jesse Eisenberg is really good, but he’s playing the same character he played in Adventureland. Harrelson’s funny and good but it’s no surprise he’s either.

Fleisher’s direction is comic-oriented, so it’s hard to tell about him.

But it’s really good stuff.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ruben Fleischer; written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; director of photography, Michael Bonvillain; edited by Alan Baumgarten; music by David Sardy; production designer, Maher Ahmad; produced by Gavin Polone; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), Emma Stone (Wichita), Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), Amber Heard (406), Bill Murray (Bill Murray) and Derek Graf (Clown Zombie).


Transsiberian (2008, Brad Anderson)

The train thriller has been a film standard for seventy years, probably longer. I can’t remember the last one, as the genre’s sort of fallen off in the last ten years. The naive American tourist is trouble genre is younger, but not by much. Transsiberian combines the two–a natural combination–but it’s far more of a character study than a thriller, as much of the film hinges on Emily Mortimer’s decision process. Accordingly, the whole thing rests on her and she really isn’t up for it. It’s kind of strange, since she’s a fine physical actress, she’s just never once believable as the recovering substance abuser who’s married an Iowa hardware store owner (Woody Harrelson). Maybe the American accent just put up a wall for her….

Brad Anderson’s approach, both to the storytelling and the direction, is very inventive and not really mainstream, blockbuster Hollywood. So the script itself being as unoriginal in its constant use of standard Hollywood thriller mores is a little strange. It starts with the mysterious, are they or aren’t they bad fellow travelers (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara). Well, actually it starts with the first Woody Harrelson is a rube because he’s from Iowa joke. There are four or five of them and it’s kind of strange to see a film mock its ostensible protagonist. The film does start differently, however, with an uncritical churchgoers opening scene. It’s kind of nice… maybe all the rube jokes were to make up for it.

Harrelson barely resonates in the film (his character is so one-note), with Noriega dominating the first half as the male presence. Noriega isn’t even particularly good, he just isn’t supposed to be mind-numbingly boring… which is exactly what attracts Mortimer to him.

Here’s where Transsiberian is so interesting–Mortimer’s not at all a good person, which makes her an interesting protagonist. Except the script saddles her with all this unbelievable backstory and it’s all very simplistic. Without the backstory, the film would probably run ten minutes shorter and be a lot less expository.

The script splits the film into two halves–the naive tourist thriller and the train thriller (even though the train’s in the whole movie)–and it works toward making the film more interesting as Mortimer has a lot more to do on her own in the second half and she really just doesn’t cut it.

Ben Kingsley’s got a decent part. Kate Mara isn’t bad. Thomas Kretschmann’s good in what should have been an uncredited cameo.

Alfonso Vilallonga’s score is so good it gets its own paragraph.

As Mortimer essayed the big revelation scene (the first big revelation scene, the last one is actually very quiet as the film excuses all of Mortimer’s actions in the end so she can have a Hollywood ending), I wondered if she was bad or the script was bad. Then I imagined Rose Byrne in her role and Transsiberian would have been excellent. Or really good anyway (Byrne would have been great). Anderson’s always been a competent, cute filmmaker and this one is no different. He usually just casts a little better.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Anderson; written by Anderson and Will Conroy; director of photography, Xavier Giménez; edited by Jaume Martí; music by Alfonso Vilallonga; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Julio Fernández; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Roy), Emily Mortimer (Jessie), Kate Mara (Abby), Eduardo Noriega (Carlos), Thomas Kretschmann (Kolzak) and Ben Kingsley (Grinko).


No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s something untranslatable about the last line of a novel. Even though maybe it shouldn’t, it essentially sums up everything–not just the scene or the story or the characters, but the reader’s experience as well… (whether the writer’s experience of writing the book is summed up in the line is, obviously, immaterial). With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers translate that moment in to filmic terms, which is a film first in my experience.

The film is a masterful immersive experience, the wide open Texas plains, the gradual, somehow disinterested narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’s soothing performance of an also somewhat disinterested character. The minute Josh Brolin walks across the plains, looking for the money he and the viewer knows must be there, No Country opens up and swallows the viewer. The maw invisibly closes. Javier Bardem is a red herring. While he’s fantastic, the character is fantastic, he’s not the compelling aspect. Brolin’s generally unlikable character, however, his experience–for much of the film–is the viewer’s reference point. The Coen’s don’t even need to do it in a standard way (I kept thinking about Robocop, how Verhoeven realized he needed to make the violence as graphic as possible to make the audience care about a character they’d known fifteen minutes)… I think they’ve got it down just from Brolin spying the money. The viewer cares about him because, for a few key moments, he or she and the character are the same–realizing the same things at the same time, thinking the same thing. It’s not big realization stuff, it’s empirical observation followed by a conclusion, which is different.

I’m wondering if that immersion is solely responsible for the Coen’s handling of the passing of time. No Country for Old Men doesn’t have a pace, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t drag. It just plays out. So I guess the playing out is a result of the immersion… But there are no rises or falls in action, in tenseness. The tenseness is on the scene level. There’s oddly no air of dread hanging over Old Men all together–something one of the characters brings up near the end: what, exactly, could happen differently. There’s no expectation of the coming scene. There’s some foreshadowing, but it’s not the same thing. No Country doesn’t create any anticipation… again, it’s an immersion result. Such effective immersion isn’t a new thing, but in a thriller, one would think it was cross-purpose. But it’s not. No Country for Old Men simply transcends the genre, possibly without even thinking about it (the Coens, usually so ready to be recognized for the dissimilarities between their films, draw no attention to No Country’s genre… in many ways, it’s the least Coen-identified film of theirs in fifteen years).

They also learned how to cast. Usually, their casts draw attention to themselves through familiarity or peculiarity (mostly how distracting William H. Macy got playing his standard in Fargo). Here, not at all. While Jones is playing a somewhat familiar role (though I’ve never actually seen him play a Texas lawman before), he’s doing something entirely different–he’s not a reluctant everyman compelled to act. Javier Bardem takes the film’s hardest role and makes it look like the easiest (he takes his character, a filmic villain only marginally different from Halloween’s Michael Myers and the like, and makes him real). Brolin’s deceptively good as the not-quite protagonist–every time I thought anyone could do the job, he did something to make himself essential.

When No Country started and was in Texas, I tried to force myself to look for some connection to Blood Simple. I quickly gave up, because–as usual–the Coen Brothers were doing something different. Except with this one, they put the film before their name brand quirkiness.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis) and Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells).


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